Social interaction in Jordan is replete with all kinds of seemingly impenetrable verbal and behavioral rituals, most of which can remain unaddressed by foreigners with impunity. A few things are worth knowing, however.
The energy Jordanians put into social relationships can shame Westerners used to keep a distance. Total strangers greet each other like chums and chat happily about nothing special. Passers-by ask each other’s advice or exchange opinions without a second thought, and old friends embark on volleys of salutations and cheek-kisses, joyful arm-squeezing or back-slapping, and earnest inquiries after health, family, business, and news. Foreigners more used to avoiding strangers and doing business in shops quickly and impersonally can come across as cold, uninterested, and even arrogant. Smiling, learning one or two of the standard forms of greeting, acknowledging those who are welcoming you, and exchanging pleasantries will bring you closer to people more quickly than anything else.
People shake hands in Jordan much more than in the West, and even the merest contact with a stranger is usually punctuated by at least one or two handshakes to indicate fraternity.
Personal space is treated somewhat differently in Arab cultures than in the West: for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. Queuing is a foreign notion; in many situations, hanging back deferentially invites other people to move in front. Jordanians also relate to the natural environment somewhat differently from Westerners. Sitting alone or with a friend in the most perfectly tranquil spot, you may find someone approaching you, blocking the sunset, and eager for a chat. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to convey your desire to be alone.
It’s almost inevitable that during your time in Jordan, you’ll be invited to drink tea with someone, either in their shop or their home. It’s pretty likely that you’ll be asked for a full meal at someone’s house. Jordanians take hospitality very much to heart and are honestly interested in talking to you and making you feel comfortable. However, offers tend to flow so thick and fast that it would be difficult to agree with everyone, yet people are often so eager it can also be difficult – and potentially rude – to refuse outright.
First and foremost, whether you’re interested or not, take the time to chat civilly; nothing is more offensive than walking on without a word or making an impatient gesture, even if they’re the only person that day to stop you. If you’re invited, and you don’t want to accept, a broad smile with your head lowered, your right hand over your heart, and “shukran shukran” (“thank you, thank you”) is a straightforward but socially acceptable no. You may have to do this several times – it’s all part of the social ritual of polite insistence. Adding “marra okhra, insha'Allah” (“another time, if God wills it”) softens the “no” still further, indicating that you won’t forget their kind offer.
Below, we’ve gone into detail about what to expect if you’ve been personally invited to a private gathering. However, suppose you’re attending a “bedouin dinner” as part of a tour-group itinerary. In that case, the event is commercial: you’re paying for the experience, so the same social norms and values don’t apply. In this situation, your Bedouin hosts will be tourism professionals, probably with good English anyway.
If you’re invited to eat with someone at home and choose to accept, the first thing to consider is how to repay your host’s hospitality. Attempting to offer money would be deeply offensive – what is appropriate is to bring some token of your appreciation. A kilo or two of sweet pastries handed to your host as you arrive will be immediately ferreted out of sight and never referred to again; however, the gesture will have been appreciated. Otherwise, presenting gifts directly will generally cause embarrassment since complex social etiquette demands that such a gift be refused several times before acceptance. Instead, you can acknowledge your appreciation by giving gifts to the minor children: pens, small toys, notebooks, football stickers, and even picture postcards of your home country will endear you to your hosts much more than might appear from the monetary value of such things.
It’s worth pointing out that you should be much more sparing and – above all – general-zed in praising your host’s home and decor than is expected in the West, since if you show noticeable interest in a particular piece, big or small, your host may feel obliged to give it to you. Minefields of complex verbal jockeyings to maintain dignity and family honor open up if you refuse to accept the item. Many local people keep their reception rooms relatively bare for this reason.
If you’re a vegetarian, you would be entirely within social etiquette to clarify your dietary preferences before accepting an invitation. Especially in touristy areas, vegetarianism is accepted as a Western foible, and neither side will be embarrassed. Elsewhere, it can help to clarify what seems an extraordinary and unfamiliar practice by claiming it to be a religious or medical obligation. All best efforts notwithstanding, veggies should be prepared to sit in front of a steaming dish of fatty meat stew and tucked in heartily while still looking like they’re enjoying it.
This section outlines some things that may happen once you eat with a family. It may all seem too daunting for words to try and remember everything here. The bottom line is that you don’t have to act outrageously to offend anyone deeply. Your host would never be so inhospitable as to make a big deal about some social blunder.
Once you arrive for a meal, you may be handed a thimbleful of bitter Arabic coffee as a welcoming gesture; down it rapidly, since everyone present must drink before sociabilities can continue. Hand the cup back while jiggling your wrist: this indicates you don’t want anymore (if you hand it straight back, you’ll get a refill). The meal – often a mansaf – may well be served on the floor if you’re in a tent, generally with the head of the household, his adult sons, and any male friends squatting on one knee or sitting cross-legged around a large communal platter; western women count as males for social purposes and will be included in the circle. As a guest of honor, you may be invited to sit beside the head of the household. Even if wives and daughters are present, they almost certainly won’t eat with you, and you may find that they all stay out of sight in another part of the tent or house for the duration of your visit. If they do, it would be grossly impertinent to enquire after them.
Once the food appears (generally served by the women), and the host has wished you “stay!” (“[May you eat] with two appetites!”), it would help if you confined yourself to eating – strictly with your right hand only – from that part of the platter directly in front of you. Reaching across is not done. Your host may toss over into your sector choice bits of meat – probably just ordinary bits, but perhaps the tongue, brains, or, as an outside possibility, the eyes – which, if they land in front of you, would be inexplicable to refuse. Everyone present may share a single glass of water, so if the only glass visible is put in front of you, it’s not a cue for you to down it.
While eating, locals will be careful not to lick their fingers, instead of rolling their rice and meat into a little ball one-handed and popping it in from a short distance; however, it takes ages to learn how to do this without throwing food all over yourself, and you’ll have enough social leeway to cram in a fistful as best you can subtly. It’s no embarrassment – it’s almost obligatory – to make a horrible, greasy mess of your hands and face. People do not linger, overeat, and rarely pause to chat: you may find that everyone chomps away more or less in silence.
Pause (or slow down) before you’re full, partly because as soon as you stop, you’ll be tossed more food, and partly because no one will continue eating after you – the guest of honor – have entirely stopped (so if you sit back too soon you’ll be cutting the meal short). Never finish all the food in front of you since not only does this tag you as greedy, but it’s also an insult to your host, who is obliged to keep your plate well stocked. Bear in mind that dinner for the women and children also consists of whatever the men (and you) leave behind.
When you’ve finished, your right hand over your heart, and the words alhamdulillah (“thank God”) make clear your satisfaction.